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Jewish Tours Argentina



The Ben Gurion Years
Ben Gurion Centenary 1886-1986

The Making of the State - Five Historical Decisions

The Jewishness of the State of Israel (Religion & State)

I. Background

To this day, the place of religion in the life of the State of Israel remains one of the internal conflicts of Zionism. Most of the secularists, the spiritual fathers of Zionism, were divided on this issue: a consensus emerged on "The Jewish character of the State" or "the integration of religious tradition into national life", but these were relatively abstract principles which faltered the moment a text had to be drawn up for independence. Ought there to be a direct reference to G-d in the text or not?

The Mapai party socialists found it impossible to agree to something they felt was an attack on their atheistic view of the world, whereas the representatives of the religious parties insisted on mentioning the Divine Force. The same obstacle occurred with regard to a constitution. The Declaration of Independence could not act as a constitution because, according to the religious elements, only Jewish law can be the constitution. A compromise was reached in the expression "Rock of Israel", the term used to refer to G-d in the Declaration of Independence.

Conflicts, concessions, compromises... this incident set the tone for the relationship between religion and the Jewish state.

Ben Gurion's course of action was once again based on the principle of the sovereignty of the State over the religious authorities:


"I want the State to hold religion in its hands, and not the other way round," he said.


Ben Gurion gave the religious authorities control over marriage and divorce legislation, inter alia empowering the Rabbinate to define who is Jewish.

But all this was conditional on this same group of rabbis recognizing and accepting the supremacy of the state and its parliament, which is why the National Religious Party has a monopoly in representing religious interests and institutions in Israel, so that the Minister for Religious Affairs must be a member of the NRP (Mafdal).

The tension between the religious party's ideals and its subordination to the state never fails to bring about tricky situations regarding the cultural, political and halachic question of who is a Jew in Israel.

Guide to the different lobbies:

The diagram below represents the state/religion agreement negotiated by the Labour Party and the National Religious Party on Ben Gurion's initiative.

NB. Ben Gurion chose to negotiate this agreement after the creation of the state and to include the NRP in the government, even though his majority was large enough for him to have been able to manage without them.

His considerations were:


  • It meant that the government controlled the country's religious institutions.


  • It guaranteed the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, vis-a-vis the local population and diaspora Jewry.




Labor Party - National Religious Party 'State-Religion Agreement'
  • Ministry for Religious Affairs & nomination of Chief Rabbis


  • Law of Return Only Religious Civil Law


  • Status Quo guaranteeing Jewish nature of State - Shabbat, kashrut, etc.
Secular Parties [Liberals, Citizens' Rights Movement Want a secular civil law
Communists Want equal rights for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens
Agudat Yisrael Do not recognize the authority of the Chief Rabbinate & want to impose a way of life based solely on the Torah
Neturei Karta Do not recognize the State of Israel

II. Activity


Convey the factors behind Ben Gurion's definition of the place that the Jewish religion holds today in the State of Israel through a mock trial, and attempt to answer the following question:

Is Ben Gurion responsible for the current lack of understanding between religious and secular in Israel?

Outline Details

From the creation of the Jewish state to this day, the gap between the secular and the religious has not ceased to widen:


    1. In spite of the "status quo" that was reached regarding State observance of certain Jewish laws (no public transport on Shabbat and holidays; marriages conducted exclusively by the Rabbinate), some secular Israelis believe that religion plays too great a role in national life.

    2. The religious public is concerned to maintain the status quo. Some groups want to increase the say of Jewish religion in Israeli society, believing that the current situation grants Judaism only a very minor role.

    3. Two cultures have developed; one is western, humanitarian, without religious motivation but values tradition; the other rejects some typical Western values, believes strongly in the "chosenness" of Israel and in one centrality of the Halakha (Jewish law) in both personal and national life.


Sometimes this ideological confrontation is accompanied by physical violence, especially among the ultra-orthodox who justify their opposition even through violence to anything they feel threatens the integrity of the Torah.


    4. David Ben Gurion, with his vision of a new type of Jew, "emancipated from religion", whose Judaism would be expressed by a national framework, is perhaps responsible for the "cultural war" within the State, since his concept of national sovereignty led to state control of the religious authorities.

Notes on setting and procedure for the trial:

    1. It is important to stress staging effects and to dress the part.

    2. The public has a role during the trial: they can be organized into pressure groups, divided into two lobbies (for and against the accused). Demonstrations, posters and "public" reaction will work to create a tense atmosphere.

    3. The witnesses aim to make the public understand the issue at stake, i.e. whether or not Ben Gurion was responsible for the current climate of feelings between secular and religious in Israel. Their lawyers should draw up a list of short simple questions.

    4. Distinguished guests can be called as witnesses, e.g., a shaliach, professors, lawyers. Professional lawyers could help to draw up the speech for the defense and the prosecution.

    5. Each side can call on two surprise guests whose names will not be known in advance by the jury/judges.

    6. Evidence can be presented in different ways: a video montage; an audio-visual programme; readings from Ben Gurion's writings, etc.

    7. Below are several personalities who will be important witnesses at the trial. Some of the names are real, some fictitious. Find out for yourselves!

      1. Rav Hirsch: one of the leaders of the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta sect, whose members live in the Mea Shearim area of Jerusalem. He views the Zionist state as a catastrophe for the Jewish people in similar dimensions to the Nazi genocide. He completely rejects the idea of Jewish secular sovereignty over the Holy Land of Israel, which can only be governed in accordance with the thousands-year- old laws of the Torah. The Neturei Karta do not, therefore, recognize the State of Israel; its members have refused Israeli citizenship. Rav Hirsch openly proclaims PLO ideas.

      2. The leader of the Agudat Israel party is Rav Avraham Shapira. This party disagrees with Neturei Karta, in that it agrees to sit in the Knesset with the sole aim of preserving the rights of the religious within the State of Israel. The members of Agudat Israel do not recognize the authority of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, believing the State should be governed according to the Torah. Agudat Israel has set up its own legal institutions to settle issues of civil status and marriage, putting pressure on the leadership, and particularly on the National Religious Party, for legislation of a religious nature, and to alter the status quo to its advantage.

      3. Moshe Ouna was an NRP Knesset member (MK) in the first six Knessets. A member of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Bet Shean valley, he rejects the label given by many to his party as "Mapai in a skullcap". He believes that religious Zionism has striven to answer the challenge of a brand new revolution - the declaration of the State of Israel. An intellectual and author of several books, he stresses in his writings the difference between the NRP and Agudat Israel. But Moshe Ouna does realize that the religious parties do not have a very good PR image. He holds the Aguda responsible, saying they "use the State for their own needs". However, he also accuses the attitude of the Hapoel Hamizrachi movement, the forerunner of the NRP, "its political and spiritual leadership did not foresee a plan for the future".

      Moshe Ouna feels that the NRP has lost out on both counts, attracting the wrath of both Agudat Israel (on its right) and the Labour Movement (on its left). He holds Ben Gurion responsible, because of his extreme anti-religious views. He accuses Mapai of having often supported the nomination of Rabbis (Bet Din judges) whose views are aligned with Aguda, knowing these people lack a broader secular education and oppose the State. Ouna feels that Mapai do this purely to stir up public animosity towards the religious!

      4. Rav Maimon (Fischman) was the first Minister for Religious Affairs in Israel, head of the national authority which controls the organization of Jewish religion and elects the Chief Rabbis. He set out what he saw as the essence of religious Zionism, as distinct from Aguda's views. Rav Maimon, moreover, dared to speak of adapting the Halakha to the life of the new State. One example was his suggestion to appoint and convene a new Sanhedrin, the Supreme Rabbinical Court, in the same way it used o sit in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

      5. The two chief rabbis, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, play an important part in rabbinical jurisdiction, since they are de facto presidents of the Rabbinal Supreme Court. This jurisdiction is of prime importance in the country because the court has sole authority in certain matters (such as marriage and divorce). The Chief Rabbis are civil servants and they also carry out religious administration (e.g., they grant kashrut certificates). In a way, the Chief Rabbis are, therefore, the official Jewish-religious presence in the country.


    6. The Labour Party

      Yair Harel is one of the left-wing Zionists who believe that the moral values of Judaism should be incorporated into Israeli society and that the Hebrew state needs some Jewish character. Yair Harel, a former member of a Halutzic movement, feels one does not need to believe in the coming of the Messiah, nor to pray every day to show one's love of Judaism. Social justice, equality and peace are, for him, equally Jewish values. Israel must be a moral light for all nations. He sees Ben Gurion's solution as one answer to the problem of relations between religion and state.

      7. Shula Sarid is fighting to establish secular law in Israel, completely separating state from religion. She does not agree with Ben Gurion's policy, saying he did not need the religious to ensure a majority. "Why insist on giving the State of Israel any Jewish character?" she asks. "To me, being Jewish is being Hebrew, being native, an awareness of our history... I don't fast on Yom Kippur because I don't feel it's necessary. The fast is only important for Jews in the diaspora."

      Shula Sarid is campaigning for the separation of religion and state, and for the institution of civil marriage.

      8. Sarah Yemini expresses views which closely resemble those of the Israel Communist Party, particularly regarding the preferential status given to the Jewish religion in the State of Israel.

      The Declaration of Independence provides for equality among all citizens, without distinction as to race or religion, she says; "so the position that Judaism holds in Israel is irregular". The Law of Return should apply to Palestinian Arabs wanting to return to this country.

      "An Arab should be able to be Minister of Religious Affairs in accordance with the laws of democracy. Why should the minister who has national responsibility for all religions including Islam have to be a member of the Jewish NRP?

      "Why can a Druze, who has made his career in, and reached the highest levels of Tzahal, never become Chief of Staff?

      "Why isn't an Israeli Arab appointed in charge of Arab affairs within the government? Why isn't there a single Arab minister or deputy minister in the government?"


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